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June 6, 2011

Kallon earns offers before taking the field

Like a down-on-his-luck gambler standing in front of a slot machine, Todd Wofford told himself this was it.

One more try. One more crack.

After a half-dozen failed attempts at convincing Francis Kallon, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound transfer student from England, to try American football -- a sport he had never played -- the Lawrenceville (Ga.) Central Gwinnett head coach was ready for his final stab.

"I told him, 'You can do some big things, just give me two weeks to see if you like it. If you don't like it, go ahead and stick to basketball. There won't be any drama and we can both say we gave it a shot,'" Wofford recalled.

Much to Wofford's surprise, his words to Kallon that spring day, which were neither complex nor overly profound, worked. The teenager who wouldn't budge in the past, at last did just that.

"I'd say he tried five or six times," Kallon said. "He would use mind games with me. He would give me college letters for (Central Gwinnett running back) George Morris to give to him, which was funny. This time, he spoke to me on a level I could understand."

A few months have passed since then, and it is safe to say the Kallon experiment has been a resounding success considering he committed to Georgia Tech on Monday. In fact, he has become nothing short of a recruiting sensation.

Once an athlete who thought of himself as a basketball player, Kallon not only has enjoyed his new sport, but excelled at it. Colleges, who visited the Central Gwinnett campus to scout his teammates, gushed over Kallon's measurables and were equally blown away by his combination of athleticism, agility, power, energy, enthusiasm, hunger and effort.

One scholarship offer came. Then another. And another.

Today, Kallon, a rising senior defensive end, has 12 of them, a rather remarkable total for someone who has only practiced a few weeks and, lest we forget, won't even play his first real game until August.

And just because he gave his pledge Monday to the Yellow Jackets, don't expect the attention from colleges to stop.

"I've never seen anything like it," Wofford said. "I had no idea this would happen. I was hoping this big kid could do anything for me."

The coach isn't the only one stunned by what has transpired. You can include Kallon and his parents in that group as well.

"I did not think he would get a scholarship for sports," said the player's father, Francis S. Kallon, an Atlanta-area security guard. "I thought he would get one for academics."

Coming to America

For a moment, let's backtrack and recap exactly how the younger Kallon, 17, ended up in Lawrenceville, a community just northeast of Atlanta.

He was born in London to Francis S. Kallon and Rosaline, both of whom originally are from the Republic of Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa. In London, the Kallon family lived in the southwest part of town, roughly a mile from the famed All England Club, site of the annual Wimbledon Championships.

When Kallon was a child, his parents separated and his father moved to Georgia. When the couple decided to get back together in 2010 after 11 years, instead of Kallon's father returning to London it was decided Kallon and his mother would move to the states.

"I didn't want to come," Kallon said. "She had to convince me. I wanted to stay. I had established myself over there."

The transition wasn't overly difficult, but Kallon certainly had some adjusting to do upon arriving in Lawrenceville.

"The biggest change was that instead of being independent I had to depend on my dad for drives," Kallon said. "I can't drive yet. In England, public transportation is big, especially in London."

Back in England, Kallon had dabbled in rugby and soccer, but he always considered himself a basketball player. His plan all along was to play there in college. Because of that, he decided to continue that sport after making his move.

In Lawrenceville, however, it didn't take long for a certain football coach to take an interest in him.

"The first time I saw him, I was like, 'Wow,' " Wofford said. "I didn't know anything about him. I didn't know where he was coming from. I just saw a big kid walking in the halls one day. There's roughly 2,600 kids at the school, but we could have had 5,000 kids and Francis would have stood out. He's not a skinny kid by any means. He was tall. He was thick. He looked like a football player."

Convincing Kallon of that was no simple task.

"The first time I talked to him, he said he was going to focus on basketball," the coach said. "The next time, I asked if he had thought it over. He said he needed to talk to his parents. He gave me his dad's number, but I kept missing him. Even then, Francis still just wasn't fired up about it." Eventually, Wofford's persistence was rewarded.

So was Kallon's faith in the coach.

"He came out one day to get some equipment before workouts," Wofford recalled. "Illinois was coming down to see George [Morris], and they saw Francis and were like, 'Who in the world is that?' That was before we even had practice."

Learning to dominate

To prepare for spring football, Kallon attacked his pre-practice workouts like a veteran and met with the team's defensive line coach to learn proper technique. Initially, though, he was a bit overwhelmed.

I actually don't call myself a football player, and I won't until I step on the field for the first time [for a game]. Right now, I'm a player in training. I use that to stay humble.
- Francis Kallon
"I remember a coach drawing something. I asked the guys what he was writing on the board and what were all those squiggly lines," Kallon said. "That's when George Morris told me, 'What you need to focus on is where you need to be.' "

Kallon did exactly that, amazing his coaches, teammates and colleges from the moment spring practice began to the time it ended two weeks later.

"He was so athletic, he blew right past every lineman we had," Wofford said. "It was pretty evident that in his second step he was full speed. That, with his long reach and motor is probably the thing that jumped out the most. And he never quit. He has no idea when to stop. So he just goes."

Kallon's lack of experience and football know-how would seem to be a negative. But Wofford has insisted the fact his player has a blank canvas when it comes to football as a good thing.

"He hasn't developed any bad habits," he said. "Stanford came in, and the guy and I were talking about how you don't see a typical football player, when the play is almost over, keep going. But that's all he knows."

Kallon, as one might expect, is still incredibly raw and has much to learn, but Wofford claimed, "He's not as much of a project as you'd think. He knows technique, he knows the position he's playing, he knows our defense. He's learning more every day."

Meanwhile, Kallon, who in addition to excelling in practice is a straight-A student, already has gained his teammates' respect.

"He can be tremendously good," Morris noted.

Arkansas was the first school to offer Kallon. Since then, Boston College, Duke, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina State, Purdue, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Wake Forest have followed suit. He plans to camp at Auburn and Florida this summer.

"I just thank God to be able to be here," Kallon said.

Come August, Kallon will make his eagerly anticipated regular-season debut for Central Gwinnet. Thoughts of that moment already are filling his head when he lies in bed at night.

"I actually don't call myself a football player, and I won't until I step on the field for the first time [for a game]." Kallon said "Right now, I'm a player in training. I use that to stay humble."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kneebs01@aol.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KeithRIVALS.



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